Let’s End Prison

When someone commits a crime, especially a particularly nasty one, we often get a little warm glow upon hearing that they’ve been caught and will spend X number of years (possibly life, possibly death), in prison. It’s a feel-good sentence; not as much so as the death penalty, but it’s there, and there’s no doubt about it. We also like to fantasize about prison being harsh and unpleasant, and if it was someone we really disliked, we hope like hell that they get raped in prison. That’ll learn ’em!


The United States puts more of its population, as a percentage, behind bars than any other. We’re at the top. We’re ahead of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and other places we really dislike and don’t want to be like. To be fair, in this case, we aren’t; we’re worse. Now, again, to be fair, lots of those countries just straight-up murder their prisoners and do so at a much higher rate than we do. But that’s no excuse.

Let us consider the points of prison. I’d say there are two points; punishment and protecting society. We can throw in revenge and reform as two smaller, sub-points, if we like.

I won’t argue that society has no business protecting itself, because it absolutely does. There are those people who are in prison now, and probably should be there until they die. These are people who are dangerous to themselves and to others, and will always be. I’d absolutely be ok with keeping someone like Charles Manson in prison until he dies, though even then, I think the state should have to go in periodically and prove that he needs to be kept there. We kind of have that now, with parole boards and the like, but I’d rather the burden of proof be on the state to convince people that he, or anyone else, must remain in prison.

Now we move onto the punishment discussion. Punishment is a fairly nebulous concept in many ways. Its ultimate goal is to motivate someone, through negative reinforcement, to not do what they shouldn’t be doing.

I don’t think I want the government in the business of punishing people. I just don’t. It makes me more and more uncomfortable the more that I think about it. I don’t like the idea of a government employee like a teacher spanking a child “to teach them a lesson”. By the same token, I don’t like the idea of the government locking up someone “to teach them a lesson”. That isn’t the government’s job.

I’d like prison to become an option of very last resort. I’d like it to require a special sentencing hearing and have it treated with the same weight with which we now handle capital punishment (that word again…). If this sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote a bit about it before. I said that prison should be reserved only for those who commit violent crimes, and that everyone else should be given other options.

Now I’d like to take that even farther. I’d like to suggest that except in cases of extreme violence, no one should ever spend a day in prison.

This is a radical concept. It would require a complete reworking of how we handle convicted criminals, as well as the way we treat those who are not yet convicted of a crime, but are spending time in jail awaiting trial because they’re too poor to afford bail (another thing I want to have changed). It would require us to focus, and focus hard, on reforming felons. Training them to do new jobs, giving them an education, and generally helping them to see that they can have a life that doesn’t include the crime they committed. A life beyond being a criminal.

I’m not entirely sure what form this would take. Clearly you’d need a network of something like halfway houses for a lot of the people who would otherwise be imprisoned (we can assume that many are either homeless or come from home environments that are, for one reason or another, not suitable). You’d need a system to make sure people participated in their education/job training/counseling/drug treatment/whatever.

We have something like this already, in many ways. Often with first-time offenders, judges will give them a suspended sentence, that is contingent upon them doing X, Y and Z things. This could be “finding and keeping a job”, or “finishing high school”, or the like. All we’d really have to do is expand that into a more formalized system where the default setting is a suspended sentence. If the convicted comply and finish everything the judge has ordered, let the conviction be struck from their record.

Setting up a network of treatment facilities, halfway houses, expanded educational facilities, job training sites, and the like won’t be cheap. But you know what else isn’t cheap? Prison. Prisons are expensive as fuck, and each prisoner costs, on average, $29,000 per year. If, instead, that money was largely funneled away from prisons into these other programs, and the convicts had jobs, where they were paying taxes and perhaps some percentage of income toward the costs of their programs, well, wouldn’t that be a much better way to spend money?

Of course there would continue to be those who wouldn’t get with the program, and that’s a shame. We’d have to set up some sort of graduated system to deal with that and that would, almost certainly, require some time behind bars in extreme cases. I’m willing to accept that if we must. But I’d still like the vast majority to never spend a single day or night behind bars. It’s better for them, it’s better for society, and it would make us actually deal with the problem people of our nation, rather than just throwing them aside.

Torture and the Pledge and the Meaning of America

"God bless America? No, god damn America!" - Jeremiah Wright

“God bless America? No, god damn America!” – Jeremiah Wright

Given what we now know of our government using torture, primarily through the CIA, and approved of by the White House, can someone still ethically consider themselves to be a proud American? And is it ethically correct to continue to say the Pledge of Allegiance?

Now I don’t say the Pledge anyhow. I consider it an odious little loyalty oath with religious overtones, and as an American, I’m happy to assert my freedom to not say it. But I know I’m an outlier here, so let’s consider this through the eyes of two Christian writers talking about our country and it great national shame.

Consider this from writer Benjamin L. Corey:

Still, even with the biblical arguments that I feel are straight forward (“I pledge allegiance to the flag” vs “…but I tell you, do not take a pledge”), some Christians are hesitant to let go of this tradition that as children we were indoctrinated to engage in– and I understand that. When you’ve had nationalism and tradition drilled into your head for years on end it can be hard to step back and realize that maybe we’ve been wrong– that’s how indoctrination works and why it’s so hard to break free from it. We grow up being taught that America is the greatest nation that has ever existed, that we are exceptional compared to others, that we are a “Christian” nation, and that whatever we do is good, right, and justified. And so, pledging to give our allegiance to such an entity is an easy sell, as the narrative we are given doesn’t seem on the surface to conflict with some basic understandings of following Jesus.

However, the release of the now infamous CIA Torture Report should be the final blow that closes the case on Christians reciting the pledge of allegiance. From reading the report, it should now be crystal clear to anyone who has read the teachings of Jesus as found in scripture that one cannot swear their allegiance to America while simultaneously giving our allegiance to the alternate way of Jesus. Absolutely, positively, impossible.

The contents of the report reveal what the US has done, and what has been done is anti-Christ– pure, absolute evil.

How a Jesus person could continue to swear allegiance to an entity that engages in behaviors that are so unarguably anti-Christ, sins against God, and crimes against humanity, is beyond me.


Personally, I can think of no more of a compelling reason to close the case on Christians reciting the pledge of allegiance: we can pledge our allegiance to Jesus and his way of enemy love (which he said was a requirement to become God’s children), or we can pledge our allegiance to the empire who tortures and kills its enemies (the opposite of what Christ tells us to do, thus being an “anti-Christ” nation). But, I don’t see how one could do both, as they are complete opposites. As much as I hate lines, I don’t see how this isn’t one: we can follow Jesus, or follow America, but we cannot follow both Jesus and America at the same time as they are busy doing opposite things.

We also have the following from Kyle Cupp, writing in response to Corey:

Fidelity to any organization will at times mean aligning oneself with institutional evil, remotely and materially if not formally. If you belong to an organization, you will have to tolerate evil, sometimes very grave evil. No organization is exempt from structural sin–not the state, not the church. Nevertheless, some evils are so intolerable, so embedded in an institution, that you cannot in good conscience pledge allegiance to that institution.


The United States of America receives no special graces or blessings that keep it mostly on the side of Christ. It’s not and never has been a “Christian nation.” It is not the world’s savior. American Christians do not owe their nation permanent loyalty.

It’s really an interesting question. Can you be a good and decent Christian (or Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, or whatever), and still pledge loyalty to a country that has engaged in such ruthless, beyond-the-pale evil as the United States? If you do, can you pledge equal loyalty? Which is more important, your god or your country? Can one man effectively serve two masters?

The religious aspects of this aren’t important to me, really, since I’m an atheist. But the moral arguments remain. I don’t say the Pledge, but I do participate in other aspects of American life. I quite happily pay my taxes, for example, and I would serve on a jury if asked.

But…can I continue to do those things, thus supporting my country, while at the same time, that country has engaged in something so hideously evil and immoral?

I think I can, but only under certain circumstances. If we eventually bring to justice those involved in torture, and punish the guilty as they deserve, then, yes, I absolutely can continue to support my country and do so with a clear conscience. In fact, I’d be quite happy, because it would show that the self-correcting mechanisms we have in our country are working.

But what if we don’t prosecute? What if we just shrug, and let the international community do it for us? Well, in that case, if we at least extradite for trial those involved (up to and including Bush and Cheney, and even Obama if he participated in a cover-up), then I’ll be less happy than I would be if we handled it ourselves, but least we would have allowed others to take up the responsibility. A valid argument could be made that perhaps that’s what we should do.

Suppose, though, that we fight war crimes trials every step of the way, and don’t allow the international bodies to bring to justice those who so richly deserve it? What do I do then?

I don’t really know. I think the answer might be that I’d have to step away from supporting this country. I’m not entirely sure what that would mean. It might mean, for example, refusing to pay my taxes, knowing full-well that I’d go to prison for doing so. It might mean making it clear that I won’t serve on a jury, or ever vote again.

I don’t know what I’ll do. Hopefully I won’t have to find out. It’s been only six days since the torture report was released. Let’s see where I’m at when it’s been 60 days, or 600. Then I might have some idea of what I’ll do.

A 4% Failure Rate

How much of a failure rate would you accept for seat belts? If your seat belt was of a kind that was known to fail approximately 4% of the time, would you be ok with that? What about with an airplane of a variety that was known to crash about 4% of the time? What if there was a wonderful kind of food that, unless it was prepared perfectly, stood a 4% chance of killing you? Actually, to be fair, that exists, and it’s called fugu, and apparently has a death rate of 6.8% for people who eat the sort that’s prepared wrong. So…yeah.

Anyhow, I think we can all agree that, in general, a 4% failure rate is not acceptable in any field, really. Yet it turns out that, according to a new study, about 4% of the people in the United States who are sentenced to death may actually be innocent. Whoops.

Now regardless of where you stand on the issue of the death penalty, I’d like to think that you’d at least want a fairly high level of proof before someone is sentenced to die, and that you’d find a failure rate of even 1% to be unacceptable. But 4%? I don’t see how any person with a conscience can accept a system that would intentionally kill innocent people approximately 4% of the time. That’s insane, if you really believe that’s acceptable, than, frankly, your morals are seriously fucked-up.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who think life sentences are acceptable, something I’m increasingly against, then you should know that the failure rate for that is likely way, way higher.

The Joys of Incarceration

Check out this chart I lifted from the Dish.


The whole thing is kind of horrible and illustrates how much we love punishment and revenge in this country. But I want to focus mostly on the “local jails” part of the chart. Those are usually county lock-ups where, in most states, people with a year or less on their sentences go (helpful hint: if you’re ever offered a year in jail or a year-and-a-day in state prison, take the extra day. You’ll be treated way better), and where people awaiting trial are warehoused. All the people on this chart are important (and don’t forget each number is, in fact a person), but it’s the people who are awaiting trial who got my attention.

These people outnumber the others (actual convicts), in the local jails by a two-to-one margin. These are people who are being held for trial; usually because they can’t afford bail (a problem I’ve written about before). They are, under the law, not guilty of whatever crime they are being accused of. But here they are, being treated basically the same as people who have been convicted. They suffer the same punishments doled-out by local law enforcement types like Maricopa County’s own Sheriff Joe, who brags about feeding his inmates on less than a dollar a day, and makes male inmates wear pink underwear. He, and others like him, do this as part of a “tough on crime” stance, but why are he and his kind being tough on people who are merely charged with a crime?

Now it is worth noting that people have a right to a speedy trial, and as such, shouldn’t be in a jail, even without bail, for more than a few weeks before they are tried. The problem with this is that defense attorneys will often convince their clients, correctly, that waiving their right to a speedy trial is smart. It gives the defense more time to prepare, gives the prosecution more motivation for a plea bargain, and generally makes everyone better off. Unless, of course, you’re in jail during this time. You might waive your rights for a couple of years, and while it increases the chance of you doing less time, or even no time, down the line, getting to that point is a major bitch.

But as with virtually all criminal justice issues, this one won’t be fixed by our lawmakers. It will take the courts to eventually step in and change the rules regarding these sorts of things. Our lawmakers are elected, and pretty much no-one ever gets elected by taking a stance their opponent will paint as “soft on crime”. In the meantime, I guess the best we can do is continue to make people aware of the problem. So consider yourself more aware.

Ending Some Bullshit

So it’s late, and I’m tired. But I did want to comment, at least briefly, on a bit of news. I’ll blog in more detail on it later, but, yay! Eric Holder has called for an end to sentencing minimums for non-violent drug offenders. This isn’t perfect. It should end for all people; minimum sentencing removes the power from the judges and prosecution where it sound be. But it is a start, rather like this article. I’ll do more on his efforts later, but for now, as I said before, yay!

Yet Another GITMO Death

Imagine being accused of a crime for which you are innocent, found guilty and sent to prison. That would be possibly one of the worst things that can happen to anyone. You haven’t done what the state says you did, and yet there you are, imprisoned. I can only imagine how much that must weigh on a person when it happens.

Now imagine that you eventually proved you weren’t guilty, the courts agreed that you weren’t guilty, and then you spent the next nine years in prison anyhow. That’s the situation that faced Adnan Latif, who was rounded up in the time following 9/11 and illegally held without charges. He eventually proved he wasn’t guilty of being a terrorist and his release was ordered. Time passed, and now, nine years later, he was still being held because the Obama administration keeps dragging their feet on releasing these people.

So it came as no surprise at all, really, when Latiff was found in his cell, dead of a drug overdose. This man, who had mental problems and had threatened suicide before, was being illegally held in criminal and immoral conditions. It’s no shock that he finally lost hope and killed himself. Really, the surprise is that he didn’t do it sooner.

That he was there in the first place is a moral, ethical, and legal failing of the Bush administration. That he remained there years after his release was authorized was a failing of both Bush and Obama, though to be fair, Obama did try to close GITMO, only to be told by Congress that they weren’t going to allow that to happen. So I guess we can blame them for this guy’s death, too.

In fact, while we’re at it, since this is a representative democracy, why don’t we all accept a portion of the blame? Ultimately we’re the masters of our government. They only do what they think we want. We told them we didn’t want GITMO closed, so they left it open, and look what has happened now.

And we wonder, from time to time, why certain parts of the world hate us.

Alone Among the “Civilized”

In 2011, 20 countries carried out state-mandated murders against helpless people, something more euphemistically called “capital punishment”. And if you don’t categorize convicted criminals as “helpless”, ask yourself how helpless you’d be locked in a small cell with several large, armed men coming to put you in chains and haul you off to die.

Those countries are:

South Sudan
Saudi Arabia
North Korea

And in case you didn’t see this one coming…

The United States of America

Notice the company we keep on this list. States like North Korea, Iran and Syria, who are known sponsors of state sanctioned terrorism. Dictatorships like Belarus. Countries who were so rotten that we invaded them, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Notice also the countries that aren’t on that list. Mexico, Russia, Libya. And then there’s us. The land of the free, the home of the brave, etc. A nation not built on the concept of revenge, but one that’s fully embraced it.

Don’t pretend the death penalty is anything other than revenge and murder. It’s clearly not self-defense, since we’re quite capable of putting people in prison and keeping them from escaping. Don’t pretend it’s a deterrent, because we know it isn’t. Don’t pretend it’s anything other than revenge and murder. Revenge against someone for doing something we don’t like, and murder because they’re helpless and a threat to no one at the time they are killed (and if you do think they’re a threat, again, ask yourself how much of a threat you could be locked in a 6′ by 8′ cell with large armed guards available 24/7).

We continue with this bizarre, appalling, barbaric practice despite the fact that we like to claim we’re the best, most civilized country in the world. Many people also like to claim we’re uniquely virtuous and Christian. I guess if you think that your god was killed by capital punishment, than perhaps it isn’t too bad, but remember that as far as I know, Jesus never called for people to be murdered by the state.

We can and should be doing better. I don’t want us on the same list with these other countries.